Diego Garcia For the price of a missile

Ulhas Joglekar ulhasj at SPAMbom4.vsnl.net.in
Mon Oct 2 05:15:51 MDT 2000

Volume 17 - Issue 18, Sep. 02 - 15, 2000
India's National Magazine on indiaserver.com
from the publishers of THE HINDU

For the price of a missile

After more than 30 years of forced exile, former inhabitants of Diego Garcia
and two other islands challenge in the court their eviction by the British
in London
ONE of the more tawdry episodes in British colonial history was unveiled in
the British High Court recently when some former inhabitants of the Indian
Ocean island of Diego Garcia and two nearby islands took legal action
against the British government for evicting them from their homes more than
30 years ago. The Chagos islands, of which Diego Garcia is the largest
island, is one of Britain's last remaining overseas colonies, but its
inhabitants were unceremoniously told to leave in the late 1960s and early
1970s so that a United States military base could be built on Diego Garcia.
Since then they have been trying to return home.

Until their eviction, the inhabitants of Diego Garcia, Peros Banhos and the
Salomon islands had led placid and contented existence fishing and
extracting oil from copra. As a U.S. Navy Website puts it: "Until 1971,
Diego Garcia's main source of income was from the profitable copra oil
plantation. At one time, copra oil from Diego Garcia and other nearby
islands provided fine machine oil and fuel to light European lamps." The
lush coconut plantations and the idyllic life of the islanders were,
however, destroyed by the imperatives of U.S. and British global strategy,
which required Diego Garcia to be converted into a base to allow Western
power to be projected into the Arabian sea and the Indian Ocean. As the U.S.
Navy puts it: "Its strategic location and full range of facilities make the
island the last link in the long logisitics chain that supports a vital U.S.
and British naval presence in the Indian Ocean and North Arabian sea." The
Diego Garcia base was put to use most recently during the U.S. operations
in Somalia, and during the Gulf War.
Sometime in the mid-1960s, Britain agreed to lease the Chagos islands to the
U.S. to build a base. The islands were then part of the British colony of
Mauritius, but when Mauritius was given independence in 1965, Britain
retained possession of the Chagos and created a new colony, called the
British Indian Ocean Territory. The U.S. wanted to lease the islands in
uninhabited state and so the residents of the islands were unceremoniously
put on boats by the British and shipped to Mauritius, where they have been
living in poverty for the last three decades. In return for the islands, the
U.S. apparently took œ11 million off the price of the Polaris submarine
based missiles it sold to Britain.
When they left home, most of the people were not even aware that they faced
permanent exile. Louis Bancoult, now 51, went to Mauritius in 1967 with his
family because his sister needed medical treatment. When they tried to
return to their home on Peros Banos, the British authorites simply told
them they could not come back. The islanders say that others had to leave
when the British stopped shipping essential supplies to the islands. They
say that the British took them to Mauritius promising them land, money and
animals to begin a new life. But when they got to Mauritius, there was
nothing there for them. Nearly 30 years on, the islanders are still poor and
miserable. They have not succeeded in integrating themselves into local
society, and the rate of unemployment is high among them. They live in
shantytowns, and sustain themselves by working as manual labourers and
domestic servants.
Although they had been promised money to resettle, it was only in 1982, more
than 10 years after they had been exiled, that Britain paid them a total of
œ4 million, a sum they say has not been enough for them to rebuild their
Not surprisingly, the islanders have long been trying to return home. The
British issued an ordinance in 1971 banning them from returning to the
islands, but it was only earlier this year that they won permission from the
courts, in the teeth of government opposition, to seek judicial review of
this ban order. Now 447 of the surviving adults, as well as the 3,000-odd
children who were born to the original evictees, want the right to return.
When the case came up for hearing in the High Court in July, lawyers for the
islanders produced British Home Office documents from the 1960s which showed
the contempt with which the government had dealt with the islanders. Senior
British civil servants decided that they would describe the inhabitants of
the islands as "contract labourers" rather than permanent inhabitants, so
that it would be easy to evict them. This was despite the fact that some
islanders said they had lived there for generations.
Internal documents that are now in the public domain show that Britain knew
that there were permanent inhabitants on the island, and was trying to cover
it up. As one civil servant put in a note, it was essential to "maintain the
pretence that there were no permanent inhabitants". The then head of the
British Foreign Office, Sir Paul Gore-Booth, urged his officials that "we
must be very tough about this", adding that "there will be no indigenous
population except seagulls." Another diplomat, in a fine expression of
colonial disdain for the colonised, described the people of the islands as
Tarzans and Man Fridays. "Unfortunately along with the birds go a few
Tarzans and Man Fridays whose origins are obscure, and who are being
hopefully wished on to Mauritius." Britain clearly wanted to avoid the
possibility of the United Nations getting involved, and the then Colonial
Secretary, Anthony Greenwood, noted that it was "important to present the
U.N. with a fait accompli."
The lawyer for the islanders, Sir Sydney Kentridge QC, recently told the
court that between 1967 and 1973, Britain had evicted all 2,000 people who
lived on the Chagos islands without their consent, without consultation with
them, and without making any arrangements for their resettlement. In what he
described as a "very sad and by no means creditable episode in British
colonial history", Sir Sydney said that "when the ships carrying them
arrived in Mauritius, they were simply dumped on the dockside with no
provision made at all for their housing or subsistence."
The islanders are basing their legal challenge on the violation of their
fundamental rights. The islanders being British citizens, their lawyers have
argued that they should be allowed to return to their homes "as a right of
birth and citizenship." They have argued that the Magna Carta, one of the
foundations of British law, prevented the unlawful banishment of citizens
from their homes. They have said that they do not want to interfere with the
U.S. base on Diego Garcia, and are willing to be resettled on the eastern
side of Diego Garcia, away from the base, and on the outlying islands.
The British Foreign Office, which administers the British Indian Ocean
Territory, and is fighting the case on behalf of the government, at first
tried to argue that the High Court did not have the jurisdiction to hear the
case. This was overruled, and the Foreign Office argued that there was
nothing illegal in the original ordinance exiling the islanders. But at the
same time, it appears to have suggested quietly that the islanders could
return. Baroness Scotland, the Foreign Office Minister, revealed that a
small delegation of islanders had been taken to one of the islands, Peros
Banos, to see what conditions there were like, and to assess whether they
wanted to return. "We are taking the advice of consultants to assess whether
people could return to the outer islands, and what the environmental impact
would be." The islanders were apparently ready to return, and feel that they
can earn their livelihood by opening up the islands to tourism.
The Foreign Office is trying to distance itself from the original decision
30 years ago to evict the islanders. "This case is now more about granting
access to the islands, not about the original decision that was taken," a
Foreign Office spokeswoman said. The Foreign Office's quiet volte-face is
not surprising. In 1975, one of the more vocal champions of the islanders'
right to return was a young Labour MP, called Robin Cook. Today, as Foreign
Secretary, he finds himself in the embarrassing position of having to
defend a court action by the islanders.
After five days of hearings, the judges are expected to deliver their
judgment sometime in October.

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